Category: Podcasts and Discussions

Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time


It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.

During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.

When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”

Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.

“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”

Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.

“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:

If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.

Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.

Andrew Norman: Anxiety & Creative Process

Andrew Norman sitting by his piano with pages of scores scattered on the floor.

Composer Andrew Norman shares how his creative anxiety has led him into a current period of writer’s block. We discuss how his frenetic language captures how thoughts move in his mind, the underlying sources of his anxiety, and brainstorm together how he can move forward to reconnect with the joy of his creative process.

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo


Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

Ryan McAdams: How Myths of Artistic Leadership Fuel Destructive Behaviors

Ryan McAdams conducting an orchestra

Conductor Ryan McAdams shares how the myth of the “ideal” conductor, perpetuated at conservatory and within Western culture, glorifies destructive lifestyles such as living in isolation, excessive behaviors, constant striving for perfection, appearing omniscient, and hiding all human vulnerabilities. In order to manage these impossible professional standards, Ryan believes many conductors turn towards self-destructive behaviors, and Ryan shares some of his own personal struggles. Lastly, Ryan suggests how young conductors could be nurtured and prepared for the challenges of the profession, instead of being told they are not cut out for the job if they cannot cope with stress.

Matthew Aucoin: Risking Generosity

Matthew Aucoin


Although the Metropolitan Opera House gave the first American performances of then new works by Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and other works that are still in their repertoire, an opera by a living composer has been a rarity at the Met for decades. Yet this year, the Met opened its season (after being closed for over a year due to the pandemic) with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. And currently on stage at the Met is a second recent opera, Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin, who additionally just had his first book published, The Impossible Art, as well as the first commercially released recording of his music, the two CD set Orphic Moments on BMOP/Sound.

Despite this extraordinary amount of activity these past few weeks, the 31-year-old composer-pianist-conductor took some time out of his overextended schedule to have a wide-ranging conversation with me about opera, myth, climate change, poetry, and many other topics. Among the recurring themes during the course of our talk was generosity and risk-taking, something that is in abundance in Matthew’s own music as well as his personality.

“I do think that I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music,” he admitted. “It’s scary. And I don’t always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction.”

Yet despite a child prodigy and now leading a life completely immersed in music making, when he was an undergrad at Harvard, he considered permanently abandoning music and pursuing poetry instead.

“I got really hung up on this idea that music was too good for us and we were better off communicating to each other in language, which really felt to me like the human medium,” he remembered. “So I felt for the first time in my life a little bit distant from music. Then around the time I graduated college, it all rushed back. I really felt like I had to do this, and I felt that for a few reasons. One was that I sensed that if I didn’t dive in and commit myself to music, the musical muscle was at risk of atrophying, because it does take constant practice and upkeep. Whereas, somehow words, maybe it’s because we all use words every day anyway, I had this instinct that maybe that muscle would not atrophy. And it would be okay to leave it be for a few years, and come back to it.”

But of course, words remain extremely crucial to Matthew Aucoin’s creative endeavors, whether he’s setting poetry by Dante or Walt Whitman, writing about his own music or the work of other composers, or using words with music to tell a story in operas for which he has often written his own librettos. The other crucial thing for him is community, which is partially why he so deeply loves opera which is something that can’t exist without a community. It is also a key reason for his co-founding of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC).

“It’s an attempt to build a better and more agile model for an artist-centric company or collective,” he explained. “There’s no such thing as art that’s for everybody all the time. We’re all dealing with communities. I think that’s going to become clearer and clearer over the course of the 21st century. A big part of what AMOC is doing is we’re trying to build our own community, which is open. Everybody’s welcome. You can all join. But we’re not trying to pretend that it’s literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven. And I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. If you think of it as the building of communities, it can actually make for a better experience.”

Special Thanks to:
Colin Manjoney and Amanda Ameer at First Chair Promotion;
April Thibeault at AMT Public Relations;
Michael San Gabino at the Metropolitan Opera; and
Andrew Stein-Zeller at G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers/Wise Music Classical.

Maia Jasper White: How Crisis Changes Artistry

Maia Jasper White playing violin and Kevin Kumar dancing

Violinist Maia Jasper White shares how her relationship to music-making changed as she cared for her young daughter, who underwent surgery for craniosynostosis and a subsequent period of PTSD. We discuss how Maia temporarily stepped away from creative work and how the personal crisis changed her understanding of her own artistic expression. As co-founder of The Salistina Music Society, Maia shares her experience performing for hospital patients during Covid through Project Music Us.

Terri Lyne Carrington: A World of Sound Waiting for Us

Terri Lyne Carrington behind a drum set.

NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7.  Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!

But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.

“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”

Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.

“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.

Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.

“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”

One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.

“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”

Letting Go Of Your Work

Overlapping pages of an engraved orchestral score with various notes in pencil overlayed.

I reflect on why art is always imperfect and unpack a wave of anxiety that emerged for me while finishing a large-scale work for the LA Philharmonic. With some advice from my creative coach, Cherry Jeffs, I was able to move past emotional blocks and tackle the work’s conclusion.